“Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America” by Shari Rubin— Jews in an Unfamiliar Place

Rabin, Shari. “Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America”, (North American Religions), NYU Press, 2016.

Jews in an Unfamiliar Place

Amos Lassen

I really never thought about Jews on the American frontier but they were there. Actually, the history of those Jews begins before they got there and were still on the road. Writer Shari Rabin first tells us about the journey of some of the Jewish people as they left Eastern cities and moved into the American West and South during the nineteenth century. Of course there were successes and obstacles of these travels including unprecedented economic opportunities to the anonymity and loneliness that complicated the many legal obligations of traditional Jewish life. There were no t government-supported communities or reliable authorities from where they could get kosher meat and they were alone in the American wilderness where it was hardly possible to find nine other Jews for a minyan and since they had no identity documents who would really know that someone was Jewish?

 At this time, we learn that Jewish mobility was pivotal to the development of American Judaism. In the absence of key institutions like synagogues or charitable organizations that had been so important in the assimilation of East Coast immigrants, ordinary Jews on the frontier had to create religious life from scratch in which they expanded and transformed Jewish thought and practice.

In effect, this is the story of a neglected era in American Jewish history and we here learn about a new interpretation of American religions that did not have institutions such as congregations or denominations as its base but instead had the politics and experiences of being on the move. By focusing on everyday people, we get a more complete look at how American religion has taken shape. We meet dynamic and diverse individuals while they searched “for resources for stability, certainty, and identity in a nation where there was little to be found.”

This book is an important and significant contribution to the study of nineteenth-century American and it allows us to see how mobility affected religious life.- Author Rabin has done exceptional and extensive research and then took what she to give us a new case for the importance and centrality of the nineteenth century regarding how we understand American Judaism. Through the use of ethnographic models, material culture, and narratives, “she argues that the provisionality, the instability, and the mobility of nineteenth-century Judaism created new modes of Jewish life suitable to endure in the American environment.”

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